Dear Arch (as he liked to be called) in collaboration with Nelson Mandela as such strong advocates for human rights, made a huge contribution to the ending of the awful apartheid regime in South Africa and then as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the human rights abuses under the apartheid regime,
I had the privilege of spending time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on two occasions in 2007 and 2008 and was bowled over by his humour, humility and his passion for building close relationships between people from different ethnic, faith and cultural backgrounds across the world.
Based on the learning that we had acquired through the partnership between Marlborough and the predominantly Muslim community of Gunjur in The Gambia and the exchange of so many young people between the two communities, we brought together representatives of international development organisations to explore a dream.
“How can we in the UK ensure that no one leaves this planet without being touched by a partnership for mutual learning with a community in another part of the world, and in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean in particular, whether that be through their school, university, college, local authority, hospital, orchestra, football club, Church or Mosque etc.
To achieve this aim we created the organisation BUILD (Building Understanding through International Links for Development) and decided to publish a Toolkit for Linking that could be used by any community in the world that was interested in forming a partnership with a community in another country.
On the basis that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would entirely support such a venture, I sent him an email asking if he would write a foreword to the Toolkit. Within two days he responded by writing “My dear friend. I rather think I will. God bless you. Arch”. One week later the foreword arrived. Taking the “courage of my convictions in both hands” I wrote once more to Desmond Tutu asking whether, when next he was in the UK he would kindly launch our Toolkit at Marlborough House, the Headquarters of the Commonwealth. Within 24 hours, back came the response. “My dear friend, God bless you. I rather think I will, Arch”!
On the appointed day I had agreed that I would collect Desmond Tutu from his hotel in London in the morning and take him by taxi to Marlborough House. I arrived at the hotel in a taxi driven by Michael half an hour early and found Desmond Tutu in the foyer who greeted me with the words “You must be Nick! You are early. Come and have breakfast with me”! I could not believe that I was sitting at breakfast with the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
He asked me about the work of BUILD and then said that this tallied exactly with the Southern African Bantu concept of Ubuntu. He explained that this meant “I am, because you are” He went on to explain that we are all interdependent, we can all learn and benefit from each other”
The time came for us to climb into the taxi to drive to Marlborough House. I introduced Desmond Tutu to Michael the taxi driver and as we sat together Desmond Tutu leant forward and said to Michael “Michael, I think we should say a prayer for safe deliverance”. He then led us in a short prayer.
On arrival at Marlborough House, we sat in the large meeting hall where Desmond Tutu addressed 150 people all involved in community-based partnerships across the world.
In his wonderful speech full of humour, Desmond Tutu he said “We are all made for togetherness and all kinds of things can go horribly wrong when we break this fundamental law of our being, as when we spend, as we do, obscene amounts on budgets for instruments of death and destruction when we know full well that a very small fraction of those budgets that we call “defence” would enable every child on earth to have clean water to drink, enough to eat, a decent home, affordable education, all the things that we know make for a full and healthy life”.
“Now you are saying with this scheme of forming international partnerships “Ya! We have discovered that it is indeed by giving, that we find that we have received – we are enriched!”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke for half an hour and finished with the words, “God looks down and sees BUILD and all of those links and twinning and a smile is breaking out over God’s face and there’s a little Angel who comes up and wipes away the tears from God’s eyes and He smiles and it’s like sunshine breaking through the rain and God says “Ya! They have vindicated me – that is why I created them”!
Archbishop Tutu finished “Listen.! I have a hot line to God and God says “Use the Toolkit””!
A year later Desmond Tutu came to address the All Party Parliamentary Group that we had helped to create entitled “Connecting Communities”. Again I collected him from his hotel and on this occasion, as we drove from the hotel to Westminster, on reaching Parliament Square he called out to the taxi driver to stop, while he climbed out of the taxi to take a photograph of the statue of Nelson Mandela! I could not believe what I was witnessing.
I am moved to tears as I recall my time spent with Desmond Tutu and the impact he had on me – surely the greatest human being I was ever to meet and one of the greatest the world has ever known.